Deeper than Division: Questions for Hard Conversations

This year friends have invited me into some difficult conversations on the issues that divide neighbors — discussions about guns, immigrants and sexuality. Some of these conversations took place in churches, others around dinner tables.

The most interesting conversations, the ones that seemed to get somewhere, got underneath what we believe to the deeper issues of how we believe and why.
I started paying attention to the questions that were helping us have the conversations we really needed, and in most cases these were questions not about issues but about us.

Here’s a list of questions (in no particular order) worth inviting into your next tough discussion:

– What do I bring to this conversation?
– Why does this question matter to me?
– What does this question mean to me?
– What comes up for me when someone asks this question?
– What makes this conversation difficult for me?

– What experience do you bring to this conversation? When has this topic been personal for you?
– How did your opinions and convictions on this subject take shape? What formed you on this topic?
– What other experiences to you imagine people are bringing to the conversation?

– What is at stake for us in this conversation?
– Where in conversation about this question do we have the opportunity to love one another?

– How is this question different from other questions?
– What other questions are like this question for us? What do they have in common?

– What are we afraid could happen in a conversation about this topic?
– What do I hope could happen in a conversation about this topic?
– How might we best prepare to discuss this question?
– What rules of engagement might help us with this conversation?

– Who else is struggling with this question?
– How might we be present with the broader community as we converse together?

– To what extent have we identified with a “side” in this discussion?
– What do we most respect about the other side?
– What about our own side makes us most uncomfortable?
– What sorts of shared value or common ground do the sides share?

Avoiding Interrogation

To find the opportunity with a new customer, you’ve got to make yourself teachable.

You’re not teachable if you’ve already decided what the opportunity is. You’re not listening if you’ve already decided what the customer should buy or fixed on what you want to sell them.

If you’re asking lots of yes-no questions, testing them against some pre-determined hypothesis, you’re probably annoying them.
No one wants to be qualified for your solution before you’ve really understood their business and what they’re trying to do.

Closed-ended (yes-no, fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice questions) make a customer feel diagnosed and interrogated.
In initial conversations, customers prefer open-ended questions — what, how, who and why — questions that invite them to share perspective and tell their story. Thoughtful open-ended questions build a relationship faster.

If you’re used to troubleshooting, it will take practice to pry open your closed questions, but it’s worth it. You’ll quickly discover that the open-ended versions are the quicker route to the sale.

CLOSED


Are you using automated tools to track your inventory?

How big is your IT team?

Would you like to spend less time on maintenance?

Is [Competitor] working out for you?

Are you having trouble with X?

Are you using Windows or Linux?

OPEN


How are you tracking your inventory now?

Who manages your system today?

What do you want your IT people to be doing?

What do you like about [Competitor]?  What else would you like it to do?

How do you manage X?

Tell me about your OS.

You can convert any yes-no question to a friendlier open-ended version by assuming the answer to the original question is “yes” and asking the follow-up question.

Instead of…

Are you going to add capacity to
your data center?

Try this…

How do you plan to increase your capacity?

Yes-no questions are particularly annoying when they’re leading — that is, when you’re using a question to express your point of view. You’ll usually get better information by stating the point directly. Provocative statements encourage customers to ask questions.

Instead of…

YOU: Would you like to automate that process?
CUSTOMER: Maybe…

Try this…

YOU: A lot of our customers get big savings from automating that process.
CUSTOMER: How do they do that?

If you really want to annoy a customer, ask multiple questions at once: “Are you having thermal issues in your data center? Any hot spots or trouble controlling airflow or issues like that? Would you say that’s been a problem?”

Compare that with this version: “How’s the temperature in your data center?” Full stop. You’ll get a much better response from customers when you ask one question, then be silent and really listen to their answer.

If you’re listening, the customer will keep trying to teach you how to sell to them.

Sometimes customers do that by giving you an incomplete clue, something that sounds promising but isn’t explained. Take the bait. Always prompt them for more:  “Tell me more about that.”

CUSTOMER: This approach to storage would connect well with our new XTR initiative.
YOU: Tell me more about that initiative.

When a customer uses a vague, general term or a buzzword — flexible, interoperable, scalable, user-friendly, consolidated, streamlined, integrated — always ask, “What do you mean by that?”

CUSTOMER: This solution has to be very flexible to work for us.
YOU: What does flexibility mean for your organization?

CUSTOMER: We’re trying to make this scalable.
YOU: I’d like to understand that better. What does scalable mean for you?

Opportunity hides behind buzzwords.

Don’t interrogate customers. Engage them. As you ask open questions, make provocative statements and follow clues, they’ll teach you their business. You’ll see which of your messages are relevant. You’ll learn how to express your value in their language.

 

On Differentiation

How do you differentiate your offering in a fiercely competitive market?

How do you demonstrate the difference that matters to your prospective customers?

As competition intensifies in your space, it gets harder to differentiate your product.

Unless you’ve got a defensible patent or copyright or trade secret, your competitors will be copying your features and functions as fast as you come up with them.

Particularly in the market for sophisticated software and technology products, customers may struggle to understand exactly what products do or how they work. When customers lack relevant expertise, your competitors can easily claim that their products do whatever yours do — “We’ve got a big data set. We’re fully interoperable. We do cutting-edge analytics.” And so on. Any “differentiators” you can list as bullets on a PowerPoint slide won’t set you apart from rivals who will simply cut and paste. Customers confused by competitive claims either go with gut instincts (which often work against you) or pull back.

In markets where you can’t definitively differentiate your products, the challenge is to differentiate the partnership you’re offering customers, to show customers some unique promise of working with you to solve their problems and grow their business.

Of course, you don’t prove the value of a partnership by talking about it. Your competitors will also claim to be “trusted advisors.” But customers judge a partnership by the experience they have working with you — and that work begins with your first sales call.

Customers listen for your perspective. Behind your marketing materials, features and functions, what do you know about their business and their challenges? They aren’t really interested in how your technology differs from your rivals’. They want to know how your approach to their problem can help them do business differently. So they wonder: How deeply and broadly do you understand the puzzle they’re trying to solve? Do you understand how they’ll actually use your solution and how it fits with their other solutions? Do you understand the goals and concerns of all the people affected?

It’s important to understand the point of view your competitors are bringing to customer conversations so you can tell customers, “We see it differently.”

More critically, can you offer insight, a fresh way of thinking about their problem, an aha! moment? This insight often comes in the form of a better question than the one the customer is asking, a question that reframes the problem and switches their point of view, a question that points at root causes or hidden connections or bigger issues. (Remember, if the customer were asking the right question, he would have already solved his problem.)

When the customer experiences insight in a conversation with you, when they’re digging beneath their current understanding to something deeper, they decide that you understand the puzzle better than they do. They begin to trust your judgment and see value in the partnership. They trust you with information that will help you build a value proposition and make a sale.

When you understand the problem and potential solutions better than your competitors do, you can have a conversation they can’t have — and that differentiates you.

A prospective customer is also trying to discern your guiding principles — how do you work with partners? How do you learn and innovate and create value? Seeing your principles in action helps them judge the promise of partnership.

Are you genuinely curious and interested in their business and in the puzzle they’re trying to solve? Again, it doesn’t really matter what you or your competitors say about your principles. The questions you ask and how you listen and what you do with the information they share shows customers how you do business. Genuine interest differentiates you from competitors who would rather do all the talking.

Are you empathetic and understanding? Do you get what they’re trying to do and why it’s hard? Do you really understand where they’re stuck and why they haven’t been able to solve the problem themselves and what it might take to get them over the hump? This ability to learn quickly and connect with their concerns will distinguish you from the crowd. It’s a critical differentiator in markets for complex software and technology solutions.

When you engage a customer with curiosity and empathy, when you’re humble and generous in conversation, you’re modeling an approach to consultation they can trust. They experience your respect for them and their expertise (after all, they know their business much better than you do) and your intention to create value in partnership. They see you giving them their rightful role in the partnership, and they will teach you how to sell to them.

Finally, you can differentiate yourself through your protocols and practices. You build trust by showing up reliably, by anticipating their questions and concerns and communicating clearly. A prospective client is always wondering: How easy would you be to work with?

So when a customer asks: How are you different from your competitors?

You could list the functions and features you think set you apart. Rest assured, your competitor will have the same bullets in her next sales presentation.

You could tell them that our data sets are more comprehensive and that our analytics based on better science. The customer will nod politely and glaze a bit.

You could tell the client how we work differently, how we really listen and respect them and want to be their trusted advisors. But talk is cheap and easy to copy.

Or, if the question comes after a conversation (or two) in which you’ve been curious and empathetic; if you’ve shown up reliably, humbly and generously; if you’ve asked questions that helped them get to deeper understanding of their puzzle and fresh insight; you might simply ask them: “What would you say? What difference have you seen?”

Talk Like Cave Man

When executives complain about a manager’s wordiness or failure to get to the point in meetings, they might say, “He thinks out loud.”
When a business leader hears you say something succinctly, she believes you’ve said it before, that you’ve thought it through and probably tested it already in conversation with others.

Thinking out loud, or verbal drafting, is essential preparation for any business meeting or presentation.

School prepares us to write out our ideas, to make outlines, to develop thoughts using external media like paper and pens and index cards and now screens and keyboards.  In an interesting paper, philosopher Jonathan Gilmore suggests that the incentives, constraints and risks involved in verbalizing thoughts in public are so immediate and urgent that they lead to systematically different “products.”  Or, as one coach puts it, we speak with a different part of the brain than we write with.

In my workshop on presenting proposals to executives, we do an exercise called “Cave Man.”  Here are the rules:

Using a total of twenty words or less answer aloud all of the following questions:

  • What is the executives’ starting point for this discussion?
  • What do you know that they don’t know?
  • What exactly are you proposing?
  • How will this benefit the business?

Speak telegraphically.  Use words as tags.  Gesture freely. Trust us to connect the dots.

“Cave Man” might sound like this —

E-mail marketing broken. 1% response bad. Piloted new messages, customers’ own words. 7% response! Expand! $2m new revenue.

— the sort of telegraphic speech that evokes Tarzan or the cave man of 1960s movies or modern-day insurance commercials.

“Cave Man” gives people the experience that Gilmore writes about.  They discover when they commit to a word or phrase, it comes out.  Sometimes what comes out is surprisingly clear and direct, maybe something you didn’t know you knew.  They also see that their arguments are not really streams of words but discrete beads that can be arranged with precision.  They become more articulate.

Thinking aloud is a great way to think. It’s just that you need to do your thinking before the meeting.

Verbal drafting surfaces fresh ideas, polishes them into economical expression and helps you internalize them so they’re at hand when you need them.

Empathy as Inspiration

I sit across the table from an anxious exec in a windowless room.

“I’ve got this guy on my team, critical to a project that can’t fail. He can’t quit,” he said. “Problem is, we can’t give him the promotion he wants. He’s not really ‘promotable’ — and his review is tomorrow.”
“How can I help?”
“I need some graceful way to, well…”
“String him along?”
“Sort of.”

I turn on the video camera.

“Let’s try it. I’ll be him. What are you going to say?”
He starts. “It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen with promotions. You know it’s a crap shoot. We should talk again in a couple of months. I’ll have a clearer sense of…” And so on.

I turn off the camera. I show him the playback.

“Oh my God. I’m lying. Look at my eyes. Look at my hands. How do we fix that?”
“We can’t fix that. If you’re lying, he’ll know.”

We sit quietly. Things sink in. Then I ask: “If the roles were reversed, if you were the indispensable, non-promotable guy, what would you want him to tell you?”

He thinks for a minute. I turn on the camera.

“You’re critical to this project. It won’t succeed without you. You’re the only person on the team, maybe in the firm, with the skill and expertise to make it happen, and you know how important it is. I want you to know how much…” He is clear and direct. Suddenly he stops. “Turn off the camera.”
“You want to see it?”
“I don’t need to. I just got an idea.”
“What?”
“I just figured out how to change his job, how to make it more interesting and set up a role he can shine in.”
“Where’d that come from?”
“I don’t know. It just hit me.”

 

 

Find a Bug

I saw a small boy, maybe five or six, squatting on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store, staring intently at something. An old man with stringy gray hair limped up and squatted down beside him. I could hear only the old man’s side of the conversation.

“Cool bug… What do you think it is?… How about them horns?… Look how he walks… Huh, well….”

The boy was completely engrossed in the conversation. Both were completely engrossed in the bug.

Finally the old man stood up and said, “See you later,” and headed off.

Self-consciousness happens when we’re facing each other, when we’re trying to get something, fearful of failure or judgment. When we have something to look at together, something to play with, intimate connections happen organically. A bug magically turns strangers into friends.

People tell me that their best first dates, the ones where they really made a good connection and got to know someone new, were ones where something startling suddenly absorbed all the attention — a bug in the salad, a stickup, car trouble, torrential rain — and “gave us something to do together.”

When you meet with a prospective customer, you can try to dazzle them with your expertise. You’ll probably feel like you’re performing for a critical judge.

Or you can invite them to share their puzzle — “What are you trying to do? What seems to be happening? What have you tried? How do you want it to work? What difference would that make for your business?” — and give them one insight that might help them think differently about it.

Find a bug. They’ll forget it’s a sales call.

 

Answer the Right Question

A mentor gave me this advice: “The customer doesn’t want you to solve his problem before you really understand it. The problem is an opportunity for conversation and connection, to have fun and build trust. Don’t solve the problem too quickly. Make a good conversation last as long as you can.”

If, like me, you like being an expert or need to feel useful (or be right), it’s tough to resist solving a problem as soon as you see one. We pounce on whatever smells solvable.

Curiosity is a reliable source of fresh inspiration for us reflexive fixers.
Wonder: What’s really going on? What is this puzzle really about? Why does she care so much?
If you practice curiosity, you can override the impulse to fix and learn to hear the “question behind the question.”

I overhead this conversation at my friends’ house:

SHE: Do these pants make me look fat?
HE: I love you so much it terrifies me, and every morning when I wake up beside you, I can’t believe how lucky I am — and I don’t much like those pants.

The Bad Chaplain

The summer before I turned 40, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  (My priest had enrolled me in clinical pastoral education, saying it was probably the only way to save my soul.) I wore a clerical collar and visited suffering patients.  After about two weeks, my steely-eyed supervisor stopped me as I was leaving a patient’s room.

“You’re really terrible,” she said.
“Excuse me?”
“You’re an awful chaplain. Probably the worst we’ve had at this hospital.”
“Really?  But I’m seeing all the patients. I’m giving them everything I’ve got.”
“You talk too much. You’re giving advice and troubleshooting. You’re exhausting them. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to relieve suffering.”
“Well, right now the only relief they’re getting is when you finally leave the room.”
“So how do I get better?”
“You’re not going to get better. This is just something you’re not good at.”
“But I’m here for another ten weeks.”

She thought a moment.  “I bet you’re a good teacher. There’s the problem. A suffering person doesn’t need a teacher. He needs someone who is willing to learn what his life is like. He needs you to be his student.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“No. Obviously not.”

How often does a compulsion to perform prevent us from seeing the real opportunity for connection? You know: the salesman desperate to dump his expertise on every prospect, the consultant compelled to fix a client’s problem before she really understands it, the teacher who doesn’t seem interested in learning with his students. Perhaps, like me, you default too quickly to performance.

The performance mindset blinds us to more promising questions: What could happen in this conversation? What sort of connection with this person (or audience) is possible? Why am I performing?
What else could I do?

After my supervisor’s tough-love intervention, before I’d walk into a patient’s room, I’d put my hand on the door and ask:  Are you willing to learn what this person’s life is like?  And if the answer was no, I’d go get coffee or hide out in the bathroom.  And if the answer was yes, I’d enter as a student, not knowing what I was doing, and on a few of those rare occasions my teachers found some comfort in our visit.

Playful Brilliance

Vestiges of our earliest experiences with presentation and performance live on in business meetings:

Bedtime stories.  This ritual combines physical closeness with creative interaction.  The kid sounds out words, points to pictures.  Mom or Dad asks questions about the pictures, and they explore them together.  The kid asks questions about what the characters do and why — and they speculate about what might happen next or what could have happened differently.

“Show and Tell.”  You bring an object you think will interest your classmates (or, more problematically, one you simply want to show off) and can speak about it for 60 seconds or so.  (The time limit is critical.)  The audience leans in, expecting you’ll pass the object around, let others ask questions about it or play with it.  This intriguing object is your ticket to connection.

Creative Play.  Kids with a big sheet of manila paper draw a scene together or enact an extended fantasy on the playground, negotiating improvisation in the primal bond of play.

The junior-high book report (or poetry recitation).  You don’t want to stand in front of the class and read your execrable homework or expose the limitations of your memory. The teacher makes you.  Your grade depends on it.  You are a victim. You must shield yourself from cringing classmates’ secret delight at your humiliation.  You shrink back, mumbling, trying to vanish into your script; or you speed through it or become defiantly entertaining.  Contrast this with…

The science-fair project presentation. The audience is riveted if you’ve studied something gross or prurient — that is, truly relevant and worth sharing.  If you’re really proud of your work and want everyone to see what you’ve accomplished, it can’t be short enough.

Competitive Play:  Debate.  Spectacular displays of adrenalized intellect for prospective mates. Literate lekking.

If you feel like you’re weirdly acting out the worst of your early conditioning when you do a PowerPoint presentation, like you’re reading aloud to grown-ups in a darkened room (minus any reassuring physical proximity or interactivity) about your topic (not theirs) because you have to (fearful deference to authority) and have to prove how much work you’ve done and how smart you are — you probably are.

The best leaders draw on the best of their early conditioning when they present ideas, facilitate meetings and explore possibilities with customers. If you’ve wandered into a dysfunctional communication cul-de-sac, ask yourself: What else could I try?

How can I get closer? What do they really want to know?
Could I draw a picture or show them something cool?
How might we get to Q&A faster?
How can I make it all about them?

With practice, you can recover more and more of the generous brilliance with which you once connected.

Three Notes on Stage Fright

The Mechanical Fix: A good prescription will short-circuit the physiology of stage fright and get you through a performance. You may feel, however, oddly disconnected from yourself and your audience. Wonder about that. What do you really want?

The Spiritual Fix: Stage fright is acute self-consciousness, the ego folding in on itself.  The antidote is not to provide the ego with some other object, but through generous surrender to the needs of the audience, to deactivate it as a subject.  Stage fright persists because the ego fiercely resists being switched off

A manager who suffered from crippling stage fright met with a gifted coach.  He had to present to his company’s executives a plan to bring their manufacturing process into regulatory compliance.

“When they look at me, I see judgment, and I’m sure I’ll say something stupid or go blank.  I’m a terrible speaker.”
The coach asked, “When did you speak in front of people and it go OK?”
Nothing came to mind.  Then his aunt’s funeral, his best friend’s wedding, his daughter’s 21st birthday.
“Weren’t you scared?”
“I was terrified.”
“And you did it.”
“But that was my family.  They needed me.”
“These executives need you.  Can they join your family?”

Self-conscious dissolves when you get engrossed with someone else’s need.  (A mother rescuing children from a burning car experiences a range of intense emotions, but performance anxiety will not be among them.)  Stage fright depends critically on seeing the audience as judges to impress.  If you can cast them as friends to serve, people to help, the energy with which you anticipate meeting them will take a more hospitable form.

The Existential Cost:  A frustrated mentor once asked me: “When are you going to take responsibility for your power?”
I remembered his challenge years later when a client who had successfully overcome his anxiety about speaking up at work said, “I miss stage fright. It was a good excuse.”